The Coven- Part VIII

 

At the end of the week, on the night the red moon was full, an unusually somber party gathered for dinner.

Mrs. Auber, who lived in the nearby village, had returned to join our party, along with Lord and Lady Willingham, who were still staying at the manor. A new guest, Brother Lux, joined the party as well.

I was startled the first time I saw Brother Lux. He and Hope had been standing side by side, talking, when I arrived in the drawing room before dinner. Hope was dressed simply, in a black suit with few embellishments, so  at first I saw no difference between the two men. Their wavy brown hair, the dimples on their right cheeks, and even the lopsided way they grinned was exactly the same.  

After a moment of staring, I noticed that even though they were both wearing black, one of them was clad in the loose robes of a monk’s habit.

“Welcome to the hill country,” Brother Lux said to me once the introductions were done, and he  shook my hand. “I’m glad you came at such a fine time of year. How do you like it, so far?”

“It’s beautiful,” I said, “especially the view from the star-watching hill.”

“The star-watching hill?”

“She means bluebell hill, near the cabin. It’s where we spent our wedding night.”

Brother Lux’s face went red, and several of the party laughed.

“Should I- should I not call it the star-watching hill?” I asked.

“No; it has a very good view of the sky,” Hope said.

The party fell into silence once again; even Lady Willoughby, who often gossiped or sang, was silent. I sat on the sofa near the door, and Brother Lux sat beside me.

“It is my family’s tradition to dedicate the youngest son to the church,” he said, “while the eldest remains the heir. It just so happens that I was born three minutes earlier than my esteemed brother. However-”

“However, I threw a tantrum when the time came for me to join the church, and you offered to take my place in order to keep the peace,” Hope finished for him.

Brother Lux chuckled. “Those are your words- not mine. I only meant to say that you had no desire to serve.”

“You’re still striving to keep the peace, after all of these years,” Hope said.

“But you are right. I would rather die than serve.”

I cast my eyes back toward Brother Lux, but his face didn’t show any sign of shock or condemnation. Instead, he simply serenely at his twin, and said nothing. Silence fell back over the whole party.

When we entered the dining room, I noticed that the foot of the table, where I usually sat as Lady Frey, was set differently than the other places. The dishes were all black, the linens were black, and there was a bouquet of red moon lilies set in the glass. Hope took me gently by the hand, and led me toward an extra place that was set next to his.

I realized that the place must have been set in remembrance of the former mistress of the manor. Today, I thought, must be the anniversary of her death. Suddenly, the somber clothing, the silent party, and Brother Lux’s introduction made sense. I wondered why no one had told me – even Lady Willoughby had only given me a vague warning that Hope may be unhappy on the night of the full moon. I felt out of place in my light blue frock, and I hadn’t offered Lord Frey or Brother Lux any condolences.

The meal proceeded silently. More than once I felt the urge to check the clock. The full moon would rise at 9:30, and I had been looking forward to an opportunity to view it through my telescope. I couldn’t bring myself to show such disrespect, however. The moon would be up all night, and if the dinner party ran late, then I might view the moon the next night. Besides, the moon would be full next month, and the month after that.

I kept my peace and ate my dinner.

Hope ordered the servants with silent gestures to fill glasses and serve the other guests. He waved his hand more than once for the footmen to bring wine, and he mixed my wine with water himself. I usually did not drink much wine, but after he’d taken such pains, and on such a sad night, I could not refuse. The wine was bitter, even after being mixed with water, but I drank as much as I could to show my gratitude. Before I’d finished my first glass, he refilled it.

I continued to drink the bitter wine in careful sips, but my stomach clenched in protest. I dropped my glass and placed my hand over my mouth.

“Are you unwell?” Hope whispered in my ear.

I took a deep breath, removed my hand and tried to speak, but all I could manage was a small groan.

Hope took my hand and stood. “I beg your pardon- the lady is unwell,” he announced.

“Do you need any assistance?” Brother Lux asked.

“No, I can escort her to her room. Please stay and enjoy the meal.”

Hope led me from the room, and when my knees gave way, he caught me, and carried me up the stairs to my room.

“There,” he muttered, placing me on my bed. “Don’t fight it- you need to rest. Close your eyes.”

My eyes closed.

He placed his hand on my feverish brow- and then ran his fingers through my hair. When he spoke again, I could feel his warm breath in my ear.

“You shouldn’t be so feverish from the drug. You’re fighting it. Relax- let go of whatever you’re holding inside.”

I could feel my heart’s pounding subside, and Hope’s voice grew muffled, as though from far away.

“That’s right, just sleep. Forget your constant worry- let go of your unrelenting fears and doubts. Let me tear down these walls you’ve built around yourself- my strange little wife.”

And so he continued, until his rhythmic words were little more than waves on the sea, and I slept.

 

#

 

I woke with a start, as though from a nightmare. My face was covered in sweat- my hair stuck to my face in wet ropes. I slid out of bed and went to my toilette, where I washed the sweat away. I was fully awake, now. My stomach no longer pained me, and I found I was hungry.

I was still wearing my clothes, so I brushed my hair back, took a candle, and left the room.

The hallways were empty, and the laps unlit, but pink light streamed through the windows, setting the halls aglow. I looked out and saw the red moon hanging in the sky high above the hills.

I gazed at it for a while, tracing the familiar streaks of white, the ‘Tears of Chastity’ that marred the otherwise smooth red surface. Then I turned and dashed toward the stairs.

The house was quieter than usual. Hope was always up at night, working in his study or in the library, and usually one or two servants were up to attend him. Tonight, however, the house seemed empty.

I walked down the stairs, placed my candle on the table, and slipped out of the door. I didn’t need a lantern to find my way; the moonlight was my guide. The path was softly illuminated- a ribbon of light through the hills.

I followed the path and made the slow climb up the star-watching hill on foot. It was a fine night, with only a slight breeze that rustled the bluebells that grew on the eastern slope. The stars shone steadily above, with hardly a quiver or a twinkle.

I looked toward the crest of the hill and saw the familiar glow of a campfire that flickered in the night, casting dancing shadows of the bushes and rocks below. I paused in my walk to consider this. I seemed unlikely that bandits or poachers would intrude on Lord Frey’s land, only to take refuge on the highest hill- visible to all. Perhaps, I thought, Hope had come out to the cabin, and was enjoying the fine night.

I started forward again, but at that moment the flames at the top of the hill suddenly leapt higher, throwing sparks into the air. I jumped back in fright, and then thought that it would be better to take the safer path to the cabin, away from the eyes of whoever camped at the top of the hill.

I turned onto the other path and moved slowly. As I neared the cabin I heard music. It was nothing like the cheerful airs that were usually accompanied by Lady Willoughby’s lute, but rather a slow, mournful chorus of voices. The voices grew stronger as I approached, swelling in a rhythmic chant.

Red royt itsah cecne rever,

Red royt itsah cecne rever,

We summon thee ,

We summon thee,

Five daemons from beyond,

We channel thee into our spell,

Red royt itsah cecne rever,

Red royt itsah cecne rever,

 

I moved around the side of the cabin, clinging to the shadows under the eaves. At the crest of the hill, six figures stood hand in hand around the campfire, all shrouded in black cloaks. Their chant continued, gaining speed and fury, as they raised their clasped hands to the sky. When the chant reached its peak, the fire flared up, blazing bright blue. The chanting stopped, and five of the figures fell to the ground in genuflection as one remained standing.

The last figure pulled back the hood of his cloak, and wavy brown hair tumbled from underneath.

“Five daemons, give us the power to destroy our enemies. Teach us how to dominate those who oppose us,” Hope’s voice rang out over the hill. “We summon and stir thee.”

 

The Coven, Part IX

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